At The American Conservative, James Jeffrey outlines the “current misappropriation of the American Dream.” He reminds readers that the original meaning of the American Dream, as laid out by James Truslow Adams, “included, but extended beyond, economic opportunity.” He writes:
In the 1999 film Fight Club, Tyler Durden addresses what he sees as the problem with the American Dream. “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars,” he says. “But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
Perhaps if Durden and his gang of angst-ridden males—as well as the rest of us—had paid more attention to the historical origins of one of America’s most famous expressions, we might not feel so aggrieved.
The phrase “American Dream” was originally coined in the wake of the Great Depression by historian James Truslow Adams, when he wrote a book titled The Epic of America. (He originally called it The American Dream, but his publishers didn’t think the title catchy enough.)
“For Adams, the American dream included, but extended beyond, economic opportunity,” says Sarah Churchwell, a professor of American literature at the University of London and author of Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream. “It was about militating against privilege, rather than promising that everyone could be rich.”
The current misappropriation of the American Dream has fed into this, equating happiness with material gain. It’s increasingly evident that equation doesn’t work.
As dissatisfaction soars, populist parties and movements, mostly on the Right, are becoming a powerful force in both the United States and Europe. Democracy itself appears tarnished and suspect.
“We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation of material attachments, the unbribed soul,” wrote American philosopher William James, “the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape.”
That was written at the turn of the 20th century. The trajectory since then appears worryingly to have been sustained. America needs to remember what the dream originally meant—but perhaps more importantly, it needs to get back into moral fighting shape.
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